Who's sorry now?

Say you’re sorry.” How many times as children did we hear that parental admonition? We all learn sooner or later that, at some point in a quarrel, better to resolve matters with an apology than search for a settlement that will justly apportion blame. This playground etiquette has the virtue of simplicity. But as several recent attempts at apology demonstrate, just saying your sorry does not seem to end the quarrel (see, Gordon Marino, “Apologize for Slavery?” Commonweal, February 13, 1998). In fact, some of these efforts suggest that for many forms of transgression, saying sorry is inadequate, incomplete, or worse, it can become the cause of renewed quarreling. During his African tour, President Bill Clinton expressed regret for the complicity of the United States in the slave trade. But he expressed it in Uganda, which was not part of that trade, instead of West Africa, which was. Then, he was heatedly criticized for “attacking his own country in a foreign land” by Congressman Tom DeLay (R-Tex.). When the president expressed regret for U.S. failure to intervene in time to stop the genocidal slaughter in Rwanda, he did not go on to admit that it is unlikely that the United States, or any other country, would act differently today. Conflicts over the institutional transgressions of centuries are not likely to fade before apologies that seem merely personal and serendipitous, as Mr. Clinton’s did. On the other hand, long-prepared institutional...

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